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The machine looks like it could be used to launch a body into space. When the large metallic tube is operating it stands about eight feet tall and it is hailed as the future of funerals.
What strikes me most is how silent it is. While talking over the phone with Central Funeral Home’s owner Mike Goodyear, I can’t really hear anything happening though he assures me it’s on. He’s standing about three feet away from the machine and says his watch’s decimal meter reports the machine measuring in at about 60 decibels—about as loud as an air conditioner.
We’re talking about his alkaline hydrolysis machine. It’s the newest option available in Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to body disposition—that is, what happens to your body after you die—beyond burial and cremation.
“That’s why there are different things to do. Because everybody had a different perspective on it. So some people don’t want to be in the ground. Some people are afraid of fire. Some people are afraid of water so this might not be the choice for them. This is not for everybody. But what it does is gives everybody another choice,” Goodyear said from his funeral home in Grand Falls-Windsor.
When it comes to ways for a body to be treated after death, technology and shifting attitudes means there are more options for handling your mortal remains than ever before.
The Independent is diving into what’s available closest to home including ways to give back to the community and more environmentally friendly options—from traditional burial and cremation, to green burial, burial at sea, and donating your body to science. But we’re starting with the newest option available out in Central Newfoundland.
Aquamation: One Last Soak in the Tub
Aquamation works like this: a body is loaded into the container, the tube tilts and it gets to work breaking down tissue in a solution of 95% water and 5% alkali that’s heated to 200-300° F. It leaves behind sterile water and some inorganic bone material which can be turned into ash. That’s why it’s also known by its popular moniker: water cremation.
It’s also a green option—aquamation has one tenth the carbon footprint and uses 85% less energy than your typical fire cremation.
As of April 21, Central Funeral Homes has used the machine 40 times.
Goodyear and his wife Sheila own and operate Central Funeral Home and have locations in Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop’s Falls, and Springdale.
He first heard about aquamation a decade ago and thought this was the way of the future. On December 10, 2021, the Bio-Response Solutions machine arrived and by December 18 it was in operation.
He had looked into adding a cremation machine to his funeral home, but worried it could be a hassle that could irritate the people in the community he plans to serve. For instance, a funeral home in Corner Brook has seen public pushback from attempts to open a crematorium.
“At this point very few people who are passing away at this time even know this thing exists,” Goodyear said. “Now, we have had some families literally walk in the door and say ‘My mom passed away and we want that new aquamation.’ So some people have come in requesting it.”
In most cases he walks clients through their three options: a traditional funeral (embalming and burial in a cemetery), cremation, and then he introduces this new option. He says about 80% chose it when offered.
He thinks the driving interest is a great environmental awareness.
“Right now our whole world is on a mission of ‘let’s do better for Mother Nature than what we’ve been doing in the past’. Because we’ve been doing a very poor job.”
In traditional burial, chemicals are put in the ground through an embalmed body, while in cremation it’s put in the air.
“Either way we require Mother Nature to finish the work,” he explained. “And as we see, there are times when we can overload Mother Nature.”
Then there’s the cost to your wallet. Through the Central Funeral Home, aquamation costs $3595 plus tax for direct aquamation and remains are given back to family. A cremation, meanwhile, costs $3795.
“This choice is made on many different factors. Families need to bring all these factors into play to make the proper decision for themselves.”
Since Goodyear started aquamation, he’s had a number of local funeral home owners reach out to him who are interested in getting their own machine—so he’s optimistic this practice will spread, especially as people learn more about their options.
Someday soon, it’ll be available at a funeral home near you.
A Brief History of Modern Funerals
When someone died 200 years ago, the body would be cared for by family members—typically women—who would wash and dress it. A local carpenter would be commissioned to build a simple coffin and the person would be buried in a nearby cemetery.
That’s a far cry from what a funeral is today, where many in Canada either opt for embalming and burial in a concrete vault—or go for cremation.
While embalming and burial is often called ‘traditional’ burial, its practice doesn’t go back very far. Embalming in the West, at least, got its start during the American Civil War when many men were dying far from home. When families could afford it, they had the bodies returned to them. But to make the journey, there needed to be some type of body preservation. So a new profession popped up to solve the problem.
Enter the embalmer.
These early embalmers would find the dead, pitch a tent and get to work injecting corpses with chemicals—usually replacing the body’s blood with mercury and arsenic (formaldehyde came later). The bodies would then make the journey home via train.
This was the start of the modern funeral industry. And maybe if it weren’t for one very famous corpse, embalming would have gone out of fashion.
It was the death of Abraham Lincoln that helped establish embalming in North America. After his assassination, his corpse was so well preserved, it was taken on a cross country tour so people could pay their respects—and maybe marvel at the embalmers’ handiwork.
Many of the carpenters who once supplied caskets as part of their trade became full-time funeral homes. This is the case in Newfoundland and Labrador with Carnell’s Funeral Home, whose ancestors were wheelwrights and carriage builders.
For many, your first funeral experience was a viewing, where you saw an embalmed body gussied up in their casket. Then there was a service at a church, followed by a burial at a cemetery. The casket was lowered into the ground to rest on a concrete vault—done to make the graveyard level and easier to maintain.
This is all done under the organization of a funeral home, who arrange the embalming and the transportation for the corpse and family to the burial site.
It’s also pricey. Canadian Funerals puts the average cost for a funeral in this province somewhere around $7,775—which includes the usual purchases that come with a typical funeral like a casket, embalming and burial plot.
Unfortunately, when it comes to crunching numbers on the average costs of funerals, Statistics Canada does not report what burial costs across the country by province. Newfoundland and Labrador also doesn’t have a funeral association, who might keep track of those numbers. There is a Newfoundland and Labrador Funeral Directors and Embalmers board, though it is a regulatory body much like the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
There is an environmental cost to embalming. Embalming liquids can leach into the groundwater. As well, the embalmers are potentially exposed to harmful chemicals.
Sometimes embalming is promoted as making a ‘dangerous’ body safer—but the vast majority of dead bodies are safe to be around. Unless the individual died of something like Ebola, it is safe to have the body at home or to touch it unembalmed. Though you will see embalming advertised as something done to prevent the spread of infection—something I saw (wrongly) promoted on the Funeral Services Association of Nova Scotia website.
If embalming is for you, no judgment! For many people, it’s the best option. Besides offering the comfort of tradition, if a loved one was in an accident, for instance, the embalmer may be able to do some reconstruction work before a viewing. If the family is spread out geographically, they may need time for everyone to gather for a funeral and embalming is a way to preserve the body so everyone can say goodbye.
Flame Cremation: Ashes to Ashes, the Old-Fashioned Way
Cremation is an increasingly popular option and according to Statista, over the last twenty years more and more people have been cremated. By 2020, the cremation rate had grown to 73.1 percent of body dispositions.
However, when ‘modern’ cremation got its start in the 19th century in North America, it wasn’t exactly embraced by the public and it was even called “the sizzling process.” That has changed though.
It tends to be less expensive than embalming. Canadian Funerals peg a local cremation with a service at about $6,000, whereas a direct cremation can average around $3,500.
Again, prices can vary and if there are a number of funeral homes in the area, call around for the best price. You can also pre-arrange this.
The cremation process leaves behind bones and bone fragments, which are put into a device called a cremulator. It grinds up the bones into an ash, which is handed back to the family. There are a few options on what to do with ashes as well. They can be placed in an urn or container (which can really vary in price). From there, the ashes can be displayed at home, buried in a funeral lot, or placed in a columbarium.
Scattering the ashes is also an option and there are guidelines about how you go about it. For one thing, you aren’t allowed to scatter ashes in a cemetery. The Funeral Service Association of Canada advises people to consult with the federal or provincial government if they want to scatter ashes on Crown land. If you’d like to distribute ashes in a National Historic Park, like Signal Hill, you’ll also need to get permission from a park administrator.
If you want to hold back a little of the ashes, you can turn them into keepsakes—and you can also do this with your pet’s ashes. Natasha Glover’s WarmVibess is a local company that designs DNA jewelry, including cremated remains. Some funeral homes will also offer this as a service.
There is an environmental cost to cremation. It’s estimated that a single cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. It’s also good to keep in mind that, yes, while it’s releasing toxins into the air, the amount crematoriums emit makes up a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions.
If going green is important to you, check out this next option.
Green Burial: Going Back to the Land—Literally
Green burial, also known as natural burial, is also an option when it comes to disposition and it’s what many of our ancestors would have done prior to embalming becoming the norm. Your body is interred in a hole, buried, and left to decompose back into the earth all on its own. There’s no embalming fluid in the body, the blood hasn’t been removed and drained down a sink, there are no eye caps keeping the eyelids closed and the mouth isn’t sewn or glued shut.
But as far as anyone knows, there are no ‘green burial’ lots in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are no rules against it, so it’s really up to the local cemetery committee. To find a certified green burial, you have to cast your eye to another Atlantic Province. Jewish and Muslim burials meet the definition of green burial, however—so the practice can be done here.
“The first green burial that took place here, they brought the man in on a stretcher with his hat on his chest. Dressed in his normal dress, just looking up at the sky. He was lowered down with his hat over his face and interred,” Sunrise Park Inter-Faith Cemetery owner Wayne Hatcher told The Independent.
His cemetery is located in Hatchet Lake, a village in Halifax. It’s the only Green Burial Society of Canada-certified green burial lot in Nova Scotia.
During our conversation I found out Hatcher is actually from the west coast of Newfoundland. He started Sunrise Park cemetery in 1995 and it has a cemetery, columbarium, and an area for burying cremated remains.
A few years ago a friend convinced him to consider dedicating a portion of his land as a green burial ground. Hatcher started the green burial section—which he calls Sunrise Gardens—in the last six years and now has about 600 lots split between a regular field and forested area.
He pointed to the environmental waste generated by more typical burials—not including the embalming chemicals—but also the use of plastic, concrete and metal.
Green burial can be really unique because a lot of the planning is left in the family’s hands so you can spend what you want. Want a balloon arch? Heaps of flowers? A DJ or band?
During a recent funeral at his cemetery, Hatcher said, “the family put music on. It was just so joyful, they even danced together, waltzed together. And just a happy, happy funeral. I find with green burials they’re much happier.”
The hole for a green burial is three feet and eight inches deep, and Hatcher explained you can bury someone naked or in regular clothes but they can’t have zippers or metal bits. The point, after all, is to decompose back into the earth.
If someone is buried with an implant (like a pacemaker), that stays in them. This is unlike in a fire cremation, when that has to be removed prior to the procedure—or face explosive results.
A body can be interred with a shroud or a biodegradable container like a wicker basket.
To mark the grave you can get a rock with a name on it, or have a tree or flowers mark the spot.
“One person last year had 40 or 50 sunflower plants,” said Hatcher.
Like Goodyear, Hatcher also attributes people’s interest in green burial to an interest in the environment.
“Green burial is just a wonderful way that many of us have tried to take care of his environment. Many of us are trying to think of the children, our grandchildren, the ones who are coming behind us,” Hatcher said. “Green burial is a wonderful way of returning the body, again as naturally as possible, back to the earth.”
Hatcher declined to mention the cost of a green burial lot but as you’re still buying land, it can be pricey. According to a US source, a plot in a green cemetery can range from $1000 USD to $4000.
He also pointed out there’s nothing stopping the owners of Newfoundland and Labrador cemeteries from opening a green burial section.
Many of the cemeteries in this province are owned by religious dioceses like the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican Diocese, and are run by cemetery committees. However, they did not respond in time for publication.
Anyone interested in a green burial will need to reach out to these committees and try and get it organized before they die.
Burial at Sea: Bon Voyage!
Maybe, like many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, you love the open water and feel a deep connection to it. In that case, there’s also the option of being buried at sea.
The Funeral Service Association of Canada says burial at sea falls under the Disposal at Sea permitting provisions of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
If your heart is set on this method, be prepared for a lot of time and paperwork. You’ll need to reach out to the Environment and Climate Change Canada permit officers and they’ll decide if a Letter of Advice will be issued, which will contain guidelines on how to go forward with the burial.
There are also risks, because the body or its casket can be dredged up by fishing trawlers—or the body can break free of the casket and be discovered by people.
Carnell’s Funeral Home has a page for how to do this but beware—it’s an odyssey. First off, the funeral home arranging it needs to get a permit eight weeks in advance to the burial and will have to publish a notice of intent in the newspaper, letting people know (and have their say) over this.
There’s also a $2500 application fee payable to the Receiver General of Canada.
You’ll also need to get the deceased’s doctor to verify the body is free from infection or contagious diseases.
Then, the body gets a plastic wristband for identification, including the funeral home’s telephone number. The body is wrapped in cotton cloth—not dressed. Then it’s placed in a casket and weighed down by at least 90 kg so it’ll sink to the seabed and stay there.
There are also guidelines on how to choose the right site. It should be at least three nautical miles from land and at least 200 m of water. And be wary of trawling grounds; you don’t want the casket to resurface.
Burial at sea can also go horribly wrong. Like in 2010 when a body washed up on a Florida beach and police thought it was a homicide—until they found his obituary that noted the man had been buried at sea.
All things considered, unless you have very strong nautical commitments, scattering your ashes at sea might be a better and easier alternative.
Donating Your Body to Science: A Gift of Life and Learning
Maybe you want your body to help train the next cohort of doctors or help with research? Then you might want to sign up for the Faculty of Medicine’s anatomical gift program—a.k.a. donating your body to science.
“It’s a very selfless act,” said Dr. Patricia Cousins, medical laboratories manager and adjunct professor of BioMedical Sciences at Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine.
“In my opinion—and I know a lot of faculty here have the same opinion—it’s a gold standard in terms of how to teach anatomy and how to practice technical medicine,” she told The Independent. “Because you can’t go in and play with an active living person. This is a way to be okay with having a real person in front of you, but the fear of causing that individual’s death is not there for residents.”
“If they see something cool in that knee cap, they can go back up the leg to the femur. They can dissect and learn techniques that way.”
It’s a gift to the health care professional that will be using the body.
Donors don’t dictate what their cadaver will be used to study. One body could be used in 14 different classroom activities or make up 20 new specimens in their collection, she explained.
“It’s a huge donation based on the body itself.”
During her five year tenure in this role, Dr. Cousins said they average between four to eight donations a year. They have had one donor so far this year.
The cadavers are mostly used by the medical school, including faculty and students—although nursing, pharmacy, and kinesiology students have also used cadavers or the wet specimens from donors, she said.
“Basically, anyone who has a legitimate research program through the Faculty of Medicine,” Dr. Cousins said, adding that each undergraduate has to do some form of research to graduate and so they may also need access to a cadaver.
How it works is someone signs up for the donor program, and when they die someone reaches out to the program to let them know the donor has died. The lab needs to take the body within 48 hours after death because of the concern around decomposition. This can be tricky for people in remote areas or if there are delays like in the case of a snowstorm, added Dr. Cousins.
Once the body is at the facility it’s embalmed. Unlike embalming at a funeral home, she said this is more heavy duty because they need to preserve all the organs.
“We just need to infuse the body with preservatives, so we’re looking at 60 liters of fluid that’s being added to that body and you can imagine [how] the weight and the volume changes the individual,” she said.
As well, a person might sign up for the program but if their next-of-kin doesn’t want the body to go to the lab, the donation won’t happen.
While there are now plastic models and software available to teach anatomy, Dr. Cousins says using a real cadaver is a great way to teach medical students beyond just familiarity with the inner workings of the body.
“When you see a dead body in front of you, you have respect for that individual,” she explained. “It teaches a lot of younger people that: respect for life.” That’s especially the case if you only get five bodies a year for 80 students—you’re grateful for that chance to practice or study on that individual.
There is also a financial benefit if your body is accepted into the program, because the lab covers the cost to transport the body to the facility and the later burial or cremation. The ashes are returned to the family, she said.
They’ve also introduced a gratitude ceremony, where they invite the families of donors for tea and coffee, with music. Faculty members, residents, and students thank the families for what they and their loved ones have given them.
However, Dr. Cousins stressed that you can sign up for the program but it’s ultimately up to the program to decide if the donation is accepted.
“Anybody can sign up to the program, but it’s ultimately the cause of death that renders our decision a difficult one,” she cautioned. The program may not be able to accept the body, depending on how they died or the state of the body.
The discretion lies with the lab. People who have died in traumatic instances, burn victims, drownings, those who have certain diseases like hepatitis or chronic viral illnesses, those who were autopsied, overweight, emaciated, or recently had surgery before they died will all be rejected.
Dr. Cousins said height can also be a determining factor. Because of the size of their cooler they can only take people who are at a maximum six feet and four inches tall.
She also stressed the anatomical gift program is different from the organ donor program.
Remember to Plan Ahead for Your One-Way Trip
If you have any strong feelings or preferences as to how you want your body to be treated and celebrated after death, write it down. Preferably in a will. This means your wishes are more likely to be fulfilled and it gives your family guidance rather than trying to guess how you felt about cremation or embalming—or any of the other alternatives.
On that note, set aside some money and budget what you’d like spent on your burial. Before you expire—years before you even think it could happen—you can always call up a funeral home and make the arrangements yourself. And don’t be afraid to call around and see what the prices are. You wouldn’t buy the first car you looked at, so why is this different?
If you’re not married, you might want to designate someone as your next-of-kin to make sure you’re all on the same page. Because if you die, the automatic next-of-kin could be a family member you haven’t spoken to in years and they might have *very* different ideas about your funeral and body disposition.
As a final sign off, when you’re looking at the options, check in with your family and friends and let them know what you want and explain it. Because they’re going to have to live with your choice and try to make it happen. If they have any resistance to, say, donating your body to a medical school, then it’s not going to happen.
And make sure it’s possible for them to accomplish—if something isn’t available in your area, you might need to have a backup plan.
In the words of folk and country singer-songwriter William Prince, “Nobody makes it outta here anyway.”
So you might as well have a plan.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.
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